ABOARD THE ZAMBEZI QUEEN — “Everyone who comes to Africa finds its heart somewhere. For some it’s in the mountains, in the bush, or even in the baobabs,” says my waitress as she brings me a glass of wine and pauses on deck for a moment to look out over the water. “But for me it’s the Chobe River — this is Africa’s heart.”
It’s not hard to understand why Chobe elicits such reverence. Dividing Botswana from Namibia, the wildlife-rich waterway borders Botswana’s renowned Chobe National Park and is home to an astonishing density of both prey and predator, all bound by a primal dependence on the river for food and shelter. Chobe’s fish-rich waters also provide sustenance to the nearby villages, and fishermen in handmade, dug-out canoes dot the waterway.
Here aboard the Zambezi Queen, a 14-suite luxury floating hotel that glides languidly along the remote river, all the passengers seem to be falling under Chobe’s spell. Despite the beauty of the boat’s interior and the delicious food laid out for lunch, we all remain at the railing, our gazes inexorably drawn outward by the ever-changing array of animals along the riverbank. “I can’t close my eyes or I’ll miss something,” says Jill from Denver. “I’ve been going on safaris for seven years now, and this is the most unique one I’ve ever experienced.”
After I ask Captain Wayne Badenhorst to identify what turns out to be my first-ever sighting of a red lechwe antelope, he says, with his arms open wide, “Zambezi Queen is about the circle of life. It’s all right out in front of you.” Nodding to a herd of intermingling elephants and hippos, he adds, “There’s no need to get into a safari vehicle. At a lodge you have to drive to get to the animals; here they come to you.”
Badenhorst is not exaggerating. Since this morning, from the boat’s expansive upper deck we have spotted giraffes, zebras, dozens of elephants, and grazing along the shore, the largest pod of hippos any of us have ever seen out of water. As we watch the wildlife from the comfort of our loungers — getting up occasionally to take a dip in the plunge pool — excited birders run from bow to stern, with cameras at the ready and binoculars bouncing around their necks, yelling out, “African jacana here,” “I’ve got an open-billed stork,” “a couple of bee eaters this side.”
I will admit to originally being a skeptic. Before boarding I was a safari purist, believing that game viewing must take place deep in the bush and not from a boat.
I could not have been more wrong. With the animals showing our boat no more interest than they would an overweight seabird, we are able to get within meters of herds of buffalo, impala, elephants, hippos, and sunbathing crocs. “The numbers are unreal,” says a traveler from South Africa. “At first I was excited about every single sighting, but now it’s like, ‘Wake me up if you see an elephant, hippo, and croc all hanging out together.’ ”
Every inch of the Zambezi Queen is designed for unimpeded views. The massive upper deck patio flows into an airy dining area complete with wide windows and sliding doors. And all the suites have floor-to-ceiling windows that lead out to private balconies — the perfect place to greet the dawn. With none of the typical 5 a.m. wake-up calls of traditional safaris, I planned to catch up on shut-eye only to find that the stunning sunrise trumped sleeping in. Sitting on my balcony in my pajamas, I relax with a coffee as we float past buffalo, elephants, and a solitary fisherman casting his net in the river for that first catch of the day.
The Zambezi Queen’s environmental ethos is in tune with its natural surroundings. So as not to cause damage to the riverbeds, jet propulsion is used instead of propellers, hot water is solar heated, the toiletries are biodegradable. Suites use fans and cooling river breezes rather than air-conditioners to cut the heat.
There is one concession to land lubbers — a guided visit to Botswana’s Chobe National Park, famed for having one of the largest concentrations of elephants in the world. Though it feels strange to be in a safari vehicle, relying on luck and speed for a good viewing, the park offers us some stellar sightings. We are lucky enough to spot the rare puku antelope, a group of sable, and some resplendent carmine bee eaters. We also see more elephants and buffalo but not nearly the numbers we saw from the deck.
We get back to our floating safari boat just in time for an afternoon cruise. With wine in hand to toast the sunset, we are taken out in tender boats to get even closer to the riverbank and see what the reeds and rushes are hiding. Our knowledgeable guide, Elvis, makes sure to keep a respectful distance from a mother hippo and her two babies (“If we get too close she may get angry,” he says, “and trust me, you don’t want to see an angry hippo.”)
Sudden ripples in the water alert us to a croc that lumbers out of the river to sun himself on the bank while two curious kingfishers look on. A monitor lizard digs for stranded fish in the rocks nearby while an African fishing eagle in a nearby tree seems put out by our appearance and moves off with an haunting cry.
But come dusk it’s the sunset that holds our attention. With wine glasses refilled, we settle in to watch the sky transform from blue to pink to purple until the river swallows up the sun and fishermen in handmade canoes pass us with a wave as they head for home.
Dinner tonight — our last night — is a land-based, traditional boma (an open-air barbeque around a bonfire). Now that night has fallen sounds replace sights; the unmistakable song of the nightjars is soon drowned out by the lovelorn call of frogs hunting for mates, and the cacophonous chirp of crickets. It’s the perfect farewell orchestra. Under a star-stained sky, drunk on a heady mix of wine and great food, and filled with the collective wistfulness that inevitably marks the end of a communal adventure, many of us begin to dance around the bonfire and stamp our footprints in the banks of the river.
Sandra MacGregor can be reached at sandra-macgregor.com.